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The Minnesota Daily

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Babbage Institute records computer science history

Tucked away 90 feet underground lay thousands of records in a unique collection at the University.

The collection tells the history of one of the most remarkable advances in human civilization – information technology.

Aboveground, on the second floor of the Andersen Library, the Charles Babbage Institute’s archivists and historians work quietly to preserve the story of one of the most rapidly developing facets in history.

The Charles Babbage Institute isn’t a collection of artifacts, though it does have a few, said Associate Director Jeffrey Yost. Rather, it is a collection of ideas and a record of the processes and business decisions that went into driving the information revolution.

Yost said the institute has approximately 7,000 cubic feet of records – enough to cover the court in Williams Arena with a foot and a half of paper.

The institute’s collection is renowned, and most scholarly books on the history of computing reference the institute’s collections, Yost said.

The pace of development in the field, while exciting, also makes collecting information a challenge, he said.

“Things become history very quickly,” he said.

Steven Brewster, director of marketing and communications at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., said the information revolution is one of the key periods in history, ranking alongside the wheel and the printing press as important developments.

“Computing has become embedded in our culture, and its history is a critical component of the history of our civilization,” he said. “That is reason enough to preserve it.”

Many of the institute’s significant collections are from companies long dissolved, some with almost utilitarian names such as Applied Data Research and Control Data Corporation.

But perhaps more important to history are the institute’s collection of more than 400 oral histories of significant figures in the early stages of computer development.

The collection has histories not from “the Bill Gateses of the world,” but people who have had a lifetime of achievement in the field, such as IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr. or Nobel Prize recipient Harry Markowitz, Yost said.

University of Virginia computer science professor Gabriel Robins said no other field changes as quickly as computing.

“In computer science, sometimes we talk about the old days,” he said. “And when we talk about the old days, we mean the 1990s.”

Robins cited Google as a prime example of this rapid change. The company was founded in 1998, and seven years later is now a publicly traded company with a market value of more than $50 billion.

But outside a strictly technological context, computers matter because they are an extension of the one thing that affords humans their dominion over the planet – the mind, Robins said.

“We have almost no natural advantage against most of the animals that are lurking around, except one,” he said. “And that’s rational thought. That’s why we’re in charge and they’re not.”

In light of that, Robins said, computers amplify that natural advantage by becoming a sort of prosthesis of the mind.

“Computers allow us to do something that we already are better at than them – outthink them,” he said.

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